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How To Read Tea Leaves: The Art of Tasseography (Is It Real?)

Tasseography is also known as tassology and tasseomancy. In simpler language, it is the art of reading tea leaves (or coffee grounds, or wine sediment) in order to predict or divine the future.

The patterns left by the loose-leaf tea on the sides or bottom of the cup or bowl are studied and these are interpreted using intuition and a range of symbols and associated meanings.

The Origins of Reading Tea Leaves & Tasseography

The name is believed to be derived from the French and Arabic words tasse or tass meaning a small cup. The Greek suffixes –graph (meaning writing), -logy (the study of) and –mancy (divination) were all used to form the various names this type of fortune-telling is known by.

The practice of interpreting the patterns made by tea is centuries old, and while it is associated with Gypsies and fortune-tellers, it was a diving method used in ancient China and Greece, medieval Europe, and in the Middle East.

Today, it is practiced in many countries worldwide either as a serious form of divination, or as a more light-hearted social activity.

A Modern View of An Ancient Practice

Some of the features of this form of divination that are interesting are that it has been around for centuries and spans multiple cultures and continents.

Some sociologists and psychologists attribute this to the basic human desire and need to understand ourselves and have some sense of control over our lives.

It is also thought that unlike other mystic, magical, or occult activities that have the same aim, tea reading is used to access what Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung termed the subconscious.

This is achieved through meditation—or at least concentration—and an interpretation of symbols and or patterns. An individual who is reading his or her own tea leaves is likely to slow down, focus, and organize his or her thoughts.

That’s a great recipe for problem solving and for more creative, lateral thinking.

Tasseography Tools

The preparation and equipment necessary is neither costly nor special although one can invest in “fortune-teller cups”.

  • The Tea: one really shouldn’t use the tea from tea bags as the bits are both too regular and too small to make for good readings. Loose leaf tea is ideal but it shouldn’t be a blend with very large leaves either.
  • The cup: one must use a wide, fairly shallow cup with sloping sides. Westerners use one with a handle. A mug or a deep, straight sided tea cup won’t work. Many readers opt for a cup that has a white or very pale colored interior.

Some readers allow the subject or client to select a cup and tea as part of personalizing the experience.

With the growing popularity of tea leaf divination in the late 19th century, pottery manufacturers in the US and UK began to manufacture special cup and saucer sets for tesseomancers.

Although there were dozens of designs the three most popular are the symbol, zodiac, and playing card cups. The symbols are 12 to 50 of the most common ones used in a reading.

How to Read Tea Leaves

While most readers only read the dark images or symbols made by the leaves, other readers look at the negative space or light areas between the leaves.

The meanings of a reading are based on both the location and nature of the symbol or image. The ‘How to’ steps are not complex:

  • The area where the reading will be done should be quiet and comfortable so there are no distractions or interruptions.
  • Some readers like to use a table with an attractive cloth and those who do this professionally may take other steps to promote a harmonious space.
  • One can make tea in a pot or just in the cup that will be used. If a pot is used the tea must not be poured through a strainer as the point is to have leaves in the tea.
  • The person for whom the reading will be done should drink the tea as normal but leave about a teaspoon of liquid left in the cup.
  • The subject must then do the following:
    • Think of the question they want answered
    • Hold the cup in their left hand and swirl the cup from left to right three times
    • Turn the cup upside down over the saucer. This should be done slowly and gently
    • Use their left hand to turn the cup anticlockwise three times
    • Place their hands on top of the cup and again think about their question for 7 seconds.
  • The cup handle must face the subject.
  • The reading can now begin!

Traditionally a reading is done from the present and then moving into the future. For other readers the rim is the future and the bottom of the cup is the past.

The rim at the handle is the starting point and one then reads downwards in a spiral to the bottom of the cup.

The closer a symbol is to the bottom of the cup, the further the event is in the future. The time period from rim to base is considered by many readers to be six months while others think it applies to a period of a year.

However, this range may also refer to emotional distances or closeness to a goal or objective and not only a period of time.

Images and symbols near the handle (or “domain”) are believed to relate to the subject’s family, intimate relationships, and his or her home life. Symbols at the bottom refer to strangers and those in the middle are acquaintances or friends of friends.

Symbols opposite the handle relate to work and those to the right of the handle indicate things coming to the subject. Those on the left of the handle are things coming from the subject.

Tasseography Symbol Meanings

There are a huge number of symbols and, to make matters both more complex and more interesting—there are a host of interpretations for each of them.  

The factors that affect the derived meaning include position, proximity to other symbols, the thickness, and the color of the symbol. It’s not possible to detail or even list all the symbols here, but some of the more common ones include:

  • Butterfly: transformation or a transition / change
  • Dagger: danger; a warning
  • Circle: completion or success
  • Door: an open one means access to something new; a closed or closing one indicates the past
  • Leaf and an egg: a new beginning or life
  • Question mark: indicates a need to be cautious
  • Forked or split line: a decision
  • Sun: happiness, strength, and success
  • Coin or purse: at the bottom of the cup it symbolizes loss; at or near the rim it represents gain or profit.

Books that discuss dream symbols can also be used in order to become familiar with the hundreds of possible interpretations of shapes and patterns made by tea leaves. There’s also a great deal of information to be found via the Internet on this and related subjects.

Final Thoughts on Tea Leaf Reading

Experienced readers caution that one’s own upbringing, culture, and spiritual background all color or affect how one interprets things.

In other words all readings have a large subjective component as the reader sees symbols through the lens of their world view.

This will cause a slant or distortion of some kind and to varying degrees. Just being aware of this can help a reader guard against distortions.

What is certainly the format that most traditional readers find utterly unacceptable is tea leaf reading online.

With these websites one can just enter vary basic details (first name or the question one wants to ask for example) and in some cases select one’s tea of choice and the system generates a reading.

This lacks a great deal including the personal touch and, well, tea.

Regardless of whether one is a devotee, a skeptic, or thinks it’s just a bit of fun to practice tasseography, there is no denying that the desire to read tea leaves has been with us a very long time and shown remarkable resilience and enduring popularity.

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